The first YA novel by Alison Rattle, who has previous co-authored several non-fiction books about a wide range of subjects, The Quietness is a gripping, harrowing thriller about the emotive and repellent subject of Victorian baby farming.
When fourteen year old Queenie’s Da runs off after another of her siblings dies of starvation, Queenie’s Mam turns to prostitution to feed her family.
After she is assaulted by one of the clients, Queenie runs away across Waterloo Bridge, to find work is a house for two very sinister sisters. Everything seems normal: she sleeps in the scullery, sweeps out the fires, does the laundry, and feeds the ten babies lying on the sofa.
On the other side of London, meanwhile, beautiful but sheltered Ellen is at the mercy of her cruel father and distant, constantly-fainting mother.
Only the friendship of her maid Mary and the promise of love from her handsome cousin Jacob give her respite from her tedious, if privileged, existence.
When the two girls’ lives are brought together after a truly atrocious betrayal by both Jacob and Ellen’s father, and Queenie begins to hear rumours of babies’ bodies found wrapped in brown paper, she slowly begins to question her new life – and why she has to feed the babies with a mixture known as The Quietness.
This is a terrible tale, full of abuse, assault, murder and the ill-treatment of children. This is a terrible tale, full of abuse, assault, murder and the ill-treatment of children. The gritty world of Victorian slum London is a mire where allowing men to grope her arse for a few pennies actually seems to be one of the lesser evils that befall the fourteen-year-old Queenie.
Although her naïvety when it comes to what her employers are clearly up to with the babies is frustrating, what Rattle does so brilliantly is to show how Queenie is herself just a child, a teenage girl who wants to be loved and fed and have nice things. I was left sobbing by the end.
Ellen is a far less appealing character, but her situation is just as bleak. Although it is the two sisters, Mrs Waters and Mrs Ellis (based on two convicted real-life baby farmers, as the book’s epilogue explains) the real evil here is the misogynist, moralistic patriarchy under which abortion is illegal and women who are raped are condemned as having tempting their rapist.
For this and other reasons, this book could be very triggering, and should be read with caution. It raises questions of morality that are difficult to resolve neatly, and made me think a lot about motherhood, parental bonds – and how desperate you would have to be to knowingly sell your child to someone who would kill it for you.
This isn’t a children’s book, and I would be very surprised if it were allowed to be marketed as one. I wouldn’t have my young friends read it – certainly no one younger than 14.
It’s an excellent historical young adult read, but if you do share it with a teenager, I would recommend reading it yourself first to prepare for the questions that it will doubtless prompt.
In less skilled hands, The Quietness could have been a grisly sob-fest. However, by concentrating on the friendship between the two girls, Alison Rattle has written a gripping – if gruesome – tale, and I very much look forward to reading more from her.
Rating: 5/5 – NB, this is not a book for younger readers, and could be triggering, so read with caution.